Around the web – January 2023

Here’s your first round-up of 2023 with news, articles, and blog posts about translation and language during January.

10 tips for anyone working while travelling or wanting to enjoy other elements of life

The CV scam is becoming less and less profitable to scammers

  • There’s been a lot of coverage recently about ChatGPT. In this article the OpenAI chatbot talks about what could go wrong with GPT3 translations
  • Why do we all need subtitles now? Apparently it’s not us — the dialogue in TV and movies has become harder to hear

Why we all need subtitles now

A copy of a Greek inscription, made by laying wet paper or plaster over carved stone to create a mirror-image impression

The library’s archives include audio, text and video

The cries of camel herders mean nothing to the untrained ear, but animals respond instantly, gathering to walk together across the Saudi desert

Have you ever called a chicken parmigiana a ‘chicken in pyjamas’?

Further reading on the blog:

Back to school!

Last week I took a half-day break from normal work to participate in the Forum des Métiers (Careers Morning) at the local collège (≈ junior high school). My task was to talk about the profession of translator and interpreter to six successive groups of pupils, aged 13-15.

The school where I gave the presentations

Each talk had to last about 30 minutes, and I quickly realised that half an hour would pass very quickly so I would really need to get the essential across. I created a Powerpoint presentation with about 15 slides on the following subjects: difference between an translator and interpreter, what we actually do, examples of texts translated and situations where an interpreter is needed, how and where we work, what are the qualities of a good translator/interpreter, how to become a translator/interpreter, and I finished by talking about the personal/professional life journey which led me to becoming a professional linguist. I purposely ended with this topic as I knew I could expand or shorten it as necessary depending on how much time was left before the bell. A chance remark by one of the teachers a few days before made me realise that some (most?) pupils don’t even know what a translator is/does, so I made sure I started the presentation with an explanation. I also showed some photos of humorous mistranslations, told plenty of anecdotes, and threw in a few questions (e.g. “how many languages are there in the world?”) just to make sure the pupils didn’t fall asleep.

I made sure I was wearing this T-shirt

I made sure I was wearing this T-shirt which I won in this Translating For Europe competition.

I’m not sure how many of the 85 collègiens I talked to will later work with languages, but in any case I hope most of the them went home that day with a somewhat better knowledge of our profession.

Translation-treason conference

I recently attended a two-day conference at the University of Reunion on the theme of “Translation-treason: translation in multilingual and multicultural contexts.” Local and mainland French University professors and PhD students presented a variety of papers, and there were debates after every session.


Conference poster

In the first presentation Prof. Bernard Terramorsi compared the 1920s translation of a traditional Malagasy story: Roze manan draza fia (literally “those who have fish ancestors”) with a more recent (2010) translation. The 1924 translation was carried out by a Lutheran pastor, and Prof. Terramorsi showed how – consciously or unconsciously – the pastor’s western and conservative mindset led to mistranslations, in particular concerning the main character of the story who is an ampela manana’isa or ‘woman with gills’, and not a ‘mermaid’ (sirène) or ‘nymph’ (nymphe) as he translated into French.

This was followed by a paper by Patrice Uhl about the difficult translation of the arabic sequence in the Vth song by the troubadour William IX, and then “The respective affinities of German and French in fictive descriptions” by PhD student Sylvia Boyer. Anca Andreea Braescu Chetrariu gave an interesting presentation about the prolific French to Romanian translator Irina Mavrodin. Prof. Gwenhaël Ponnau then talked about re-translations. Why do we re-translate literature? Is it to erase a past translation/translator, whom we are opposed to? Can it be likened to a ‘competition’ between translators? How easy is it to retranslate a “canonical” translation? And is the most recent translation always the best?

13-century miniature of William IX

13-century miniature of William IX

I devoted a separate blog post to Georges Latchimy’s presentation axed on his personal translation of “Los Traductores” by Antonio Muñoz, which you can read here (in French). Next, Hajasoa Picard-Ravololonirina talked about structuralist descriptions of the Malagasy language, followed by Prof. Marie Brunette Spire who talked about (mis)translations in the first English to French translations of Israel Zangwill‘s Children of the Ghetto. She examined how linguistic and/or cultural ignorance as well as an ideological filter and conscious or unconscious prejudices can distort a text’s original meaning. Children of the Ghetto describes Jewish life, and some of the mistranslations she cited are translating ‘skullcap’ by bonnet; ‘minister’ by Ministre, and ‘best coat’ by veste de dimanche. The first day’s final paper was “Miss a word, change the world” by Laurence Gouaux-Rabasa, which coincidentally examined a somewhat similar theme to that of Prof. Spire: how Hinduism is expunged from the French translations of Indian-origin authors writing in English. She gave examples from Où irons-nous cet été ? the translation by Anne-Cécile Padoux of Where Shall We Go This Summer? by Anita Desai, and asked whether this negation is deliberate, or the result of an overly-superficial reading of the source text by the translator.

English: Israel Zangwill עברית: ישראל זנגוויל

Israel Zangwill

Work commitments meant that I missed the first two papers of the second day, which were “Comparable corpora and aligned corpus – A contrastive English ↔ French approach” by Issa Kanté and a study by Christine Pic-Gillard of  how Guarani and Spanish are (supposed to be) used bilingually in Paraguay. I arrived in time for Jean Volsan and Prof. Jean-Philippe Watbled’s presentation about translating the New Testament into Reunion Creole. They raised the valid point of language hierarchy – why are some languages seen as linguistically richer or nobler than others? Although Jesus didn’t speak Reunion Creole, he didn’t speak French or English either, so there is no reason for a translation into one of the latter languages to be superior to a Creole translation. Is the current situation of ‘Reunion Creole vs French’ perhaps similar to that of  ‘French vs Latin’ in the Middle Ages? Continuing the Creole theme in the afternoon Evelyne Adelin and Mylène Lebon-Eyquem looked at the use of Reunion Creole in the classroom. They showed that teachers need to translate French ↔ Creole in order for the two languages to be recognised as distinct.

Prof. Claude Brissac-Feral looked at the interpreting during the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and whether it betrayed the victims’ commitments and sacrifices. Given the great discrepancy between the emotions of the witnesses and those interpreting them, how much of the impact was lost in interlingual rendition? Nathalie Peyrebonne gave a presentation on title translation – while it is part of a book’s main identity, it also often the text that is the least faithfully translated. Finally Prof. Michel Prum wondered whether “Traddutore, traditore” is a paronomasia for the French translations of Charles Darwin‘s work. Darwin’s first French translator, Clémence Royer, was a Lamarckian and thus ‘Natural Selection’ became Election naturelle. Translators Jean-Jacques Moulinié and Edmond Barbier also changed certain sentences that they found to be too radical.

Clémence Royer, 1865

Clémence Royer, 1865

While highly academic and often far removed from my day-to-day preoccupations as a professional business translator, the conference was nevertheless very interesting and thought-provoking, in particular concerning the issues of retranslation, language hierarchy, and mistranslation arising from cultural prejudice.

Too funny for public transport?

So goes the blurb for “Lost in Translation“, a 2006 book by ‘Charlie Croker’ (aka Mark Mason) about “misadventures in English abroad” which I’ve just finished reading. It demonstrates some of the very best and worst instances of ‘grammar-gargling’ from around the world. Sometimes you can guess what is meant (especially if you speak the language in question), but other times you’re left scratching your head. As the author cautions us however, we should never forget that although other nations’ mistakes with English are amusing to us, their English is generally much better than our Japanese, Vietnamese, Arabic etc (and the book includes some examples from English speaking nations).

I thought I’d share with you some of the examples I found most amusing, but don’t worry there’s still plenty more in the book (and in its sequel Still Lost in Translation)!

British Council ad, reportedly a sign from a hotel restaurant in Acapulco

Italy: This hotel is renowned for its peace and solitude. In fact crowds from all over the world flock here to enjoy its solitude.

Thailand (offering donkey rides): Would you like to ride on your own ass?

In a hotel in Tel Aviv: If you wish breakfast, lift the telephone and our waitress will arrive. This will be enough to bring up your food.

French hotel restaurant: Wondering what to wear? A sports jacket may be worn to dinner, but no trousers.

Madrid hotel restaurant: Our wine list leaves you nothing to hope for.

Finnish hotel fire procedure: If you cannot reach a fire exit, close the door and expose yourself at the window.

Nairobi restaurant: Customers who find our waitresses rude ought to see the manager.

Laon, France, English translation of a sign in French reading “En cas de feu – restez calme”: In case of fire do not lose your temper.

Restaurant menu: Sole Bonne Femme (Fish Landlady style).

French menu: Nut of Holy Jacques jumped, guinea fowl stinks to it and its farce with cheese-topped dish, almost cheese-dish of mould in spice on bed of spinach.

Roguefart – on a Japanese restaurant French cheese menu

China, describing a pancake dish: Waiter will roll in front of you.

Chelsea, London: Plat du jour, changed each day.

Japanese washing machine instructions: Push button. Foam coming plenty. Big noise. Finish.

Sign at a Philippines ferry terminal: Adults: 1 USD. Child: 50 cents. Cadavers: subject to negotiation.

A Japanese copy of a Meatloaf album includes the following tracks: ‘Sixty Six Per Cent Is All Right’ (for ‘Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad’) and ‘You Took The Words Right Out of My Mouse’.

In an Israeli butcher’s: I slaughter myself twice daily.

Shop in Amman: Visit our bargain basement – one flight up and in the same shop they sell: Pork Handbags.

Swedish furrier: Fur coats made for ladies from their own skin.

At a Hong Kong costume shop: This merchandise is to be used for turning a trick on Halloween.

On Japanese toothpaste: Gives you strong mouth and refreshing wind!

On a Japanese tea bag: Do not wet with water.

Malaysian road sign

Resort at Iguaco Falls: We offer you peace and seclusion. The paths to our resort are only passable by asses. Therefore, you will certainly feel at home here.

Chinese temple: Please take one step forward and crap twice.

Swimming pool sign, resort, Philippines: Drowning absolutely prohibited.

Sewage treatment plant, as marked on a Tokyo map: Dirty Water Punishment Place.

Newly appointed Danish minister: I am in the beginning of my period.

On a French pest-control firm’s website: Small animals nibble you the life. They give you the cockroach?

In an East Africa newspaper: A new swimming pool is rapidly taking shape since the contractors have thrown in the bulk of their workers.

Slogan on mugs produced by Warwickshire County Cricket Club, who wanted to bill their star bowler ‘King of Spin’: Ashley Giles – King of Spain.

cover, Lost in Translation

The book certainly brought a smile to my face and just goes to prove – you always need a translator!


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Translation troubles

I got back a few days ago from a month-long trip to (mainland) France, the UK and Iceland (I’ll be blogging about the Icelandic language soon), and I wanted to share some surprising or humorous translation errors I came across while travelling.

First of all, when we dropped our hire car off at Edinburgh airport on our way to Iceland we came across this surprising sign:

The ‘keys’ have of course been translated into the other languages using the word for computer keys and not car keys. Thankfully the context and the illustration help you understand what is meant.

Also in Edinburgh we came across the following sign when leaving a car-park:

I don’t speak German, Italian or Spanish so can’t vouch for the other languages, but in French a new word, renez, has been created.

While we were in the UK the Korean flag scandal happened, and two days later a chain of British opticians capitalised on it with the following newspaper advertisement:

Although I lived for three years in South Korea my Korean isn’t fluent enough to be sure when there’s a mistake, however a Korean friend confirmed that while the Korean itself is correct, ‘Specsavers’ should be at the beginning and not the end of the sentence. Presumably the advertisers wanted the Korean to look like the equivalent English sentence (an advertising slogan which is well-known in the UK): “They should have gone to Specsavers”.

The day after my return to Reunion Island I went to a local restaurant with a friend who was passing through. This particular restaurant is one of the few in Saint Denis that’s taken the trouble to translate its menu into English, however they insist on using internet translation and unfortunately that gives the following results:

Drop in for dinner?

For those that don’t speak French the Crotin [sic] de Chèvre Chaud should be ‘Warm Goat’s Cheese’ in English and not ‘dung’! (This photo was featured in The Telegraph’s ‘Sign Language’ ‘Best of January 2014’ photo gallery)

Another example from the same menu:

Puts a ro-dent in your appetite?

Here Souris [d’agneau] (knuckle of lamb) has been translated literally as ‘mouse’. (This photo was also featured in The Telegraph’s ‘Sign Language’ photo gallery). Things have improved however, as a few years ago filet was translated thoughout as ‘net’ instead of ‘fillet’, and cabot de fond (a type of fish) was translated as ‘dog bottom’!

Have you seen any translations that have made you laugh out loud recently?

P.S. By the way, the level of English in Iceland was amazingly good – I virtually never saw (or even heard) any mistakes in English. 

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Adventures on a Faraway Island

Last week I was invited by the Endless Possibilities Talks (EPT) team (Al NavasGerda Prato-Espejo and Esther Navarro-Hall) to talk about my personal journey, that is say the story of how I came to end up living and working as a translator on this small island in the Indian Ocean that is Reunion Island. We also talked about my three years spent living in South Korea, and some of my travels. You can see the video here or below.

If you’re a translator or interpreter you may already have heard of the EPT initiative. Esther, Gerda and Al reside in the US and all work as Spanish interpreters, mainly in the courts; Esther also speaks French and is an Adjunct Professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and a trainer and consultant. At the beginning of this year they started a series of talks about the profession of Interpreting and Translating, using the Google Hangout on Air format. Talks are broadcast on average once a week (sometimes more), and generally include guests from the four corners of the globe. They can be watched live on Google+, or afterwards on You Tube. Previous talks have covered localisation, blogging, and technology options for interpreting, to name just a few subjects.

To find out more about EPT and their talks you can visit their Google+ page and/or their blog. You can also follow them on Twitter.

With warm thanks to Gerda, Esther and Al for allowing me this wonderful opportunity to be part of their fascinating EPT adventure, and here’s looking forward to many more talks!

Interview with a Lexicographer

Julie Moore is a freelance lexicographer based in the UK. After an early career as an English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teacher, working in Greece and the Czech Republic, she became involved in ELT (English Language Teaching) publishing, and much of her work has been in the area of ELT dictionaries. She has written for various ELT projects, as well as editing and reviewing ELT material, and she also teaches part-time EAP (English for Academic Purposes) courses at a University.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself

I live in Bristol in South West England.  I work from home in a little mezzanine office at the top of the house.

Please tell us about your job

I have a bit of a “portfolio career” – I work on all kinds of English Language Teaching (ELT) materials; dictionaries, vocabulary books, coursebooks. I wear a variety of different hats; lexicographer, writer, editor and corpus researcher, oh yes, and occasional teacher at Bristol University.

For how long and what made you become freelance?

Yes, I’ve been freelance since 2000.  My initial decision to go it alone was prompted by health issues. I suffer from fairly severe RSI [Repetitive Strain Injury] which makes it difficult to be sat at a desk 9-5.  As a freelancer, I can organise my working day so I work in short bursts (60-90 mins) and take lots of breaks.  I also have more control over my work set-up – special mouse, voice recognition software, etc.

Who do you work for?

I work for all the major ELT publishers (CUP, OUP, Macmillan, Collins, etc.).

How did you become a lexicographer, and how long have you been one for?

After several years as an EFL teacher, I realised I loved explaining language, especially vocabulary, but didn’t much like the teaching lifestyle.  So I did an MA in Special Applications of Linguistics at the University of Birmingham and as part of that I specialised in corpus linguistics and lexicography.  When I completed my Masters in 1998, I was lucky enough to get a job as an in-house lexicographer at Cambridge University Press, working on their, then new, Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary.

What are the advantages and disadvantages linked to your job?

Freelancing advantage: The biggest advantage to being a freelancer is the flexibility it gives you, both in terms of the way you work and the variety of projects you can take on.

Lexicography advantage: What’s not to like about “playing with words” all day?!

Freelancing disadvantage: One of the downsides is trying to keep a steady flow of work, it inevitably comes in peaks and troughs.  For me, the busy patches can be a struggle physically and of course, when things get quiet, you always worry, even though after 12 years freelancing, I know that something else is always going to come along. Lexicography projects are actually quite good for workflow compared to other writing, because they usually provide nice regular hours often over a period of months.

Lexicography disadvantage: I’ve been moving away from pure lexicography a bit in recent years partly because it’s become more automated and the software used to compile dictionaries has become much less RSI-friendly. You used to do a variety of different actions (paging up and down to read corpus lines, scribbling handwritten notes, typing in definitions and examples), now it’s all about ticking boxes and it’s got very mouse-heavy.

Can you describe a typical day?

Because of my health, I have to be quite disciplined about my working hours.  I get up at 8 and I’m usually at my desk by about 9. I spend a bit of time checking emails … and Facebook and Twitter! Then I usually do a couple of hours’ work in the morning. I often go for a swim at the local pool late morning, to relax and stretch out. Afternoons usually involve two working stints of 1-2 hours each with a break mid-afternoon to nip round to the shops or, in the summer, do a bit of gardening on my tiny roof terrace.

Are you part of an association or group of lexicographers? 

No, but I am a member of IATEFL (association for teachers of English).

Any advice to give to someone who’d like to become a lexicographer (or just a freelancer)?

Sadly, I think it’s more difficult to get into ELT lexicography nowadays because most of the big dictionary publishers only employ a handful of in-house editors, then use freelance lexicographers. I don’t think you’d get the kind of in-house job and valuable training I benefited from now.

On freelancing more generally, my top tip would be networking and lots of it. Most of my work has come through contacts.  I find conferences and other events are great opportunities to meet the people who matter (the ones who work for publishers!).  You don’t have to do a hard sell, just talking about what you’re interested in and sounding enthusiastic about your work goes a long way.  If you end a conversation by giving out a business card, you never know what might come of it.

Do you have a preferred moment of the day?

I think I’m most productive in the morning, but I really enjoy my mid-afternoon cup of tea, especially in the summer when I can enjoy it out on my roof terrace.

Do you use social media much? For work or pleasure?

I’ve been on Facebook for a few years, but it’s only in the past year that I’ve started using it for work. From a work perspective, it’s definitely expanded that all-important network of contacts and has even led directly to some concrete work. I started using Twitter this year, purely for work. After an initial flurry, I’m now checking it a bit less frequently, but I still think it’s a useful way of keeping in touch with the latest trends and ideas in ELT.

What is your favourite word?

If I had to pick one, I guess it would be “soporific”.  I came across it as a young child reading Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies”.  I loved the feel of it in my mouth and I think, perhaps, it marked the start of my love affair with words. I also have a bit of a penchant for words beginning “squ …”.

What is your least favourite word?

I generally try very hard not to be a language pedant.  I can’t help but notice language ‘errors’ when I see them, but I try not to take a ‘moral’ stand unless it’s in a context where someone should really  know better. One thing that bugs me every time though is the incorrect usage of ‘everyday’ instead of ‘every day’.

As a lexicographer, do you have to know lots of words?

When I tell people what I do, this is one of the most common reactions (along with comments about being good at Scrabble!), but in fact, although I like language, I wouldn’t say I have a particularly wide vocabulary.  Most learner’s dictionaries focus on the most frequent words in the language anyway and when I’ve worked on higher level and native-speaker dictionaries, you always use corpus data. Thankfully, lexicographers don’t just make up what goes in the dictionary!
Other people come up with language questions they want settled.  I often find myself explaining that modern lexicography is descriptive rather than prescriptive – we just describe language as it’s currently used, we don’t make judgements about what’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

Thank you Julie! For more about Julie visit You can follow her on Twitter at @lexicojules.

7 facts about Reunion Creole

I realise some readers might not know much about Reunion Creole, the language which is spoken as mother tongue by about 90% of the population* on the island where I live, La Réunion, in the Indian Ocean.

1) Until the late 17th century the island was uninhabited so there was no local population and thus no indigenous language. When the island started being inhabited it was initially by people from France and Madagascar, later by slaves from East Africa. When slavery was abolished in 1848 indentured labourers were brought in from India and China. All these factors led to a linguistic melting-pot, with French dominating but with input from Malagasy, Portuguese, Tamil, Gujarati and Hindi, and this led to the development of Réunion Creole.

1770 Bonne Map of East Africa, Madagascar, Isl...

1770 Map of East Africa, Madagascar, Reunion Island (Isle Bourbon) and Mauritius (Isle de France).

2) What is a Creole? Briefly, a Creole is a language which has developed from parent languages and which is spoken as the native language by those growing up where the Creole is spoken. The word itself comes from criollo (Spanish) and crioulo (Portuguese), words used in the 16th and 17th centuries in the colonies to describe those born and raised locally as opposed to those who immigrated as adults. A study carried out in 1977 by Ian Hancock counted 127 different Creoles world-wide, 15 of which are French-based.

3) Following are a few examples of  Reunion Creole words and their origin:

  • carri –  the name of the main type of dish in Reunion (from the Tamil kari)
  • papang – a bird of prey (from the Malagasy papango)
  • Le Tampon is a local place name which comes from the Malagasy tampona, meaning ‘summit’.
  • macatia – a type of sweet bread roll (from the Swahili mkate)
  • malbar – person of Indian origin (from the Portuguese malabar)
  • bringèle – aubergine (from the Portuguese berinjela)
Overview of Le Tampon

Continue reading

Mauritian musings

I recently took a trip to Mauritius, a place I know fairly well as it’s Reunion’s neighbouring island, but where I hadn’t been back to since 2001.

Mauritius doesn’t have official languages, although English is the ‘unofficial’ official language, used for business and government, and French is used more in culture and education. However inhabitants’ native language is Mauritian Creole, which although still French-based, is sufficiently different from Reunion Creole for me to have trouble understanding it (although of course I’m not a native speaker of Reunion Creole; mother-tongue speakers of the latter have less trouble understanding Mauritian Creole than I do).

Mauritius has its own Google, available in Mauritian Creole.

Generally speaking Mauritians will spontaneously address a foreigner in French, but switch easily to English if that foreigner is non-French speaking. However the Mauritian bilingualism can sometimes lead to confusion, such as on the following sign which mixes the English “sale” with the French “chemise”, with amusing consequences if you understand both languages.

Another sign also made me smile, as the writer had obviously forgotten the English word ‘butt’ for a cigarette end while writing it!

How language can reflect cultural assumptions

English: Two Khasi girls in traditional dress ...

I recently listened to a podcast on the BBC’s “From our Own Correspondent” programme (you can read the corresponding article here : BBC News – Meghalaya, India: Where women rule, and men are suffragettes or listen here) about a small north-eastern Indian state which operates under a  matrilineal system. Here men are the downtrodden gender and a men’s rights movement has been created. Interestingly the comment was made that the local Khasi language reflects this cultural, gender-based assumption:

“A tree is masculine, but when it is turned into wood, it becomes feminine,” says the president of the movement. “The same is true of many of the nouns in our language. When something becomes useful, its gender becomes female”.

Rather like in French “un arbre” for a tree but “une planche” for a plank of wood. I’d never really thought of things that way, in terms of usefulness. Don’t you think the men are taking things a bit far? At least English doesn’t have the same problem!

Khasi man

P.S. Funnily enough while listening to this podcast I found out that Cherrapunji, a town in Meghalaya holds the world records for the most amount of rain in 4 days, 31 days, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 11 and 12 months, and two years. This was of interest to me as Reunion Island, where I live, holds the world records for the most amount of rain in 9, 18 1/2, and 24 hours, and 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 days! You can read my blog post about it here.

Highest Rainfall in the world in cherrapunjee